Rosemary Panelle (Sicilian Chickpea Fritters)
I like eating my meals with knife and fork as much as the next person. And apart from the occasional bite of leftovers in front of the open fridge or piece of fruit slurped down over the sink, that's how I normally do eat: table, chair, plate, silverware. It's a time-honored formula for meal consumption that keeps our fingers and clothing clean and provides a framework for both polite socialization and the daily reinforcement of family bonds. Nevertheless, it's not by any means the only way to eat, nor is it always the most fun. If it was, why else would street food be so perennially popular?
Street food is inarguably one of humanity's great common denominators. From the fish and chips of Scotland to the fish tacos of Baja, it's made - and eaten - by everyone. Of course the specifics may vary; in some places, such as much of Asia, a huge variety of food is prepared and eaten directly on the street, sold from mobile carts and makeshift kitchens that may be here today and gone tomorrow. Elsewhere permanent structures house the operations, offering a nearly restaurant-like experience except that you're expected to clear out and enjoy your meal somewhere else. The types of street food on offer varies too - in some countries the sheer variety surpasses that of restaurants and home kitchens, while in others only a limited repertoire of foods is deemed worthy of munching on the go. But whether it's meat or vegetables, salty or sweet, messy or clean, hygienic or not, one characteristic seems to unite street food everywhere: it's nearly always remarkably good.
I have various theories about why street food seems so much more reliably tasty than, say, restaurant food. One has to do with the 'fresh air makes things taste better' factor. You've probably experienced how a meal eaten while camping or picnicking, even if it's the same thing you've eaten day in and day out for years, tastes ten times better in the great outdoors. The only weakness to this theory is that an exhaust- and traffic-choked street - the scene of many a great street food experience for me - is hardly the great outdoors, and somehow the food is always just as good. Another theory, then, is what I like to call Culinary Darwinism. It goes like this: in the street food business, without the fallbacks of great service or atmosphere to lure in paying customers, the food is everything, and since bad food unequivocally spells economic failure, in the grand scheme of things there must be a lower proportion of bad street food than bad restaurant food. Makes sense, no? Of course there are other things at work here too, like the universally low cost of street foods - I, for one, find it much easier to appreciate subtle nuances in flavor if I'm not preoccupied with feeling ripped off.
Then again, I'm kind of partial to the notion that street food is so tasty because so much of it is fried. Frying seems to be the ideal way to make food portable - it seals in messy fillings, it's quick and requires minimal equipment, and it can be done à la minute. And did I mention that everything tastes better fried? Certainly chickpeas do, or as I should more rightly say, chickpea flour does, as the Levantines have proved with falafel, the Indians with pakoras, and the Sicilians with their crunchy-soft, light-yet-toothsome snack called panelle. Panelle are the southern siblings of a street snack called panisses in southern France, and are made by cooking chickpea flour and water into a stiff paste before plunging strips of it in oil until they sputter, puff, and turn a nutty golden brown. In Sicily they often layer the freshly-fried panelle between slices of bread to create a delicious, economical sandwich; in Nice they sprinkle them with sugar just as often as with salt. And while the chickpeas alone lend a full, hearty flavor to these fritters, I also like to think of them as a blank canvas. Here I've added rosemary for a delicious woodsy fragrance, but I imagine you could be as creative as you want with these, experimenting with all kinds of nontraditional herbs and spices. The only thing that's obligatory is to serve them hot and crisp, straight from the fryer.
Knives, forks and plates - not to mention a roof - are of course entirely optional.
Source: adapted from Clarissa Hyman's Cucina Siciliana
Serves: 8-10 as an hors d'oeuvre
2 cups (250g) chickpea flour (sold in Indian shops under the name besan or gram flour)
3 cups (750ml) water
1 rounded teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
olive or vegetable oil for frying
lemon juice and freshly-ground black pepper, for serving
Oil two large baking sheets and set them aside.
In a medium heavy saucepan, whisk together the chickpea flour, water, salt, and rosemary until completely smooth. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of polenta or a thick porridge, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk vigorously to get rid of any lumps, then quickly pour the mixture onto the baking sheets, dividing evenly. Working quickly, spread the mixture out, smoothing the top as best you can, to a uniform thickness of 1/8-1/4 inch (4-6mm). Let cool completely.
Using a sharp knife, cut the firm chickpea mixture into triangles or rectangles 2-3 inches (5-7cm) long.
Heat 3/4 inch (2cm) oil in a deep, heavy skillet until it registers 375F/190C on thermometer, then fry the panelle in batches, turning occasionally, until golden and slightly puffed, 3 to 5 minutes per batch. Transfer to paper towels to drain. You can keep them warm on a baking sheet in the oven while frying the remaining batches.
Just before serving, sprinkle with lemon juice and pepper. Serve immediately.